The young man might realize the fatal drawback to its scheme and refuse to cooperate. Therefore, it hid its history as “Fuxi” from him.
But it was too late. The titles everywhere in the palace, Longxi’s strange garments and gait, all roused the young man’s suspicion.
When he returned, the young man studied many histories and records, and, with the help of an extraordinarily intelligent girl, finally discovered the true identity of his mysterious master.
The young man was at first puzzled. He didn’t understand why anyone would hide such a glorious and honorable past. But very quickly, he realized, and shock and worry followed.
There was a conspiracy at play, a terrible conspiracy.
He had to stop it!
The young man knew well the dangers, the near impossibility of success. Failure would bring with it horrific retribution, but he didn’t fear anything that might happen to his person after failure. Compared with the devastation that would result from the conspiracy’s success, any damage done to an individual was reduced to insignificance.
The most important thing was, he had to succeed. He couldn’t fail! He was one of the greats of this era, a talent found perhaps once in a hundred, a thousand years. If even his intelligence exhausted to its utmost couldn’t stop Longxi’s conspiracy, who afterward could save them?
He must succeed!
He left no stone unturned, using all of his knowledge from the battlefields to create a secret plan of his own. He would use the strongest force in all of nature, one that he’d never used in a battle before-- the fires below the earth.
In the beginning, the plan went smoothly. He talked the messenger into persuading his master to bring him three powerful weapons. Then, on the shores of the Gulf of Bohai, at the foot of Zhifu Mountain, he shot all three weapons toward Longxi’s island. As he predicted, the force of the weapons triggered the long-dormant volcano, and its explosion destroyed the island palace, triggered a tsunami of rare magnitude.
But when the ashes settled, he received dark news: Longxi had survived!
He didn’t know how. Perhaps that sort of being possessed far greater endurance than humans.
Regardless, he’d done all he could. He had results to show for it. He destroyed the palace and devices that Longxi spent at least three thousand years building. Rebuilding it all would take that long again.
He delayed the employment of the conspiracy, won time to breathe for humanity. With this time, perhaps humanity could develop sufficient knowledge and intelligence to counter Longxi.
He was satisfied.
He knew the price he would soon have to pay for his choice. But he would face it calmly. He would not regret.
The story was over.
The moon had risen in the east, its clear light scattering silver upon the placid Sishui.
Ji Jiang was silent for a long time.
The King of Chu said: “Did you understand?”
Ji Jiang nodded. “Yes. But...” she slowly turned her head. “Is it all real?”
The King of Chu said: “Yes.”
Ji Jiang said: “Can you prove it to me?”
The King of Chu said: “Yes.” He looked up at the sky. “The moon looks good, but this is April. It’s best if we don’t go too far.”
Ji Jiang stared.
The King of Chu reached into his robes and carefully took out an object.
It was a pebble of rounded jade, pure white, about the size of a fist.
“Ji Jiang,” the King of Chu said, “do you still remember that elusive pheasant in the palace? You weren’t hearing pheasant-cries. You were hearing the warping of time. And you must have been puzzled at all the meteors passing above the palace. Those weren’t meteors, either, but the jade-pheasant absorbing the moon’s energy. This is the pheasant god from the temple at Chencang Town, so I call it the jade-pheasant.
“This is the device that Longxi lost. By all rights, no one should have found something so small and plain, lost among the deserted, mountainous wilderness. For that reason, Longxi wasn’t particularly concerned about where it ended up. He never expected that a curious ruler would send an army of thousands to search for it. That ruler was Duke Wen of Qin.
“After scouring the mountainsides, he at last found the jade-pheasant and kept it at the temple until now. I’ve looked through the histories. Chencang Passage was open at the time of Duke Wen of Qin’s reign.” The jade-pheasant began to glow from the inside, as if some spirit had lit a lamp in its depths.
Luo! Luo! Luo! Pheasant-cries rose around them.
A thin line of light, like a meteor, flew into the jade-pheasant. Another followed...
The jade-pheasant grew brighter and brighter.
Ji Jiang looked at it fearfully and took a few steps back.
The King of Chu said: “Don’t be afraid. Step a little closer to me. We’re about to set off.” The King of Chu gently twisted the jade-pheasant. It had appeared perfectly smooth and unmarked by cracks earlier, but the jade-pheasant now split into two halves. On the inside of each half were oddly-shaped knobs, circled by precise dividing lines marked with strange symbols.
The King of Chu said: “See, this is time, and this is space.” He carefully adjusted the knobs and put the jade-pheasant back together.
A powerful, but not blinding, ray of white light shot out of the jade-pheasant. Strangely, it didn’t shine into the distance, only gently wrapped itself around the two of them.
Ji Jiang, whether out of nervousness or fear, felt dizzy and nauseated.
The King of Chu held her shoulders. “If you feel dizziness or nausea, don’t be afraid. They’re normal.”
Ji Jiang found that the white light was thickening like mist, completely blocking off her view. She couldn’t see anything from the outside, and even the King of Chu beside her had become blurry. But she could clearly feel the King of Chu’s hands on her shoulders, hear him comfort her: “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid...”
The mist-like white light thickened still into the consistency of milk. It was terrifying, sinking into this sea of white. The whiteness pervaded every space around her, pressed against her senses, as if she could open her mouth and bite into it, reach out and seize it. And yet it was still only formless light.
Suddenly, she heard an ear-splitting shriek that overrode even the King of Chu’s comforting voice.
In the midst of terror, her only reassurance came from the King of Chu’s warm hands, which had never left her shoulders... the world suddenly brightened, and the terrible white light and shrieking sound both disappeared.
The sun dazzled in the cloudless sky. She found that they stood in a beautiful garden, an artificial hill beneath their feet. In front of the artificial mountain lay a clear pond, and across the pond sat a girl, dazedly looking at the surface of the water. Suddenly, the girl’s body shook, and she slowly raised her head and gazed toward them.
The girl was swarthy, skinny, and short, but her eyes were large and bright. Horror appeared in those eyes.
The King of Chu said: “Do you understand?”
Ji Jiang nodded. “I understand.”
The girl from across the pond moaned and collapsed to the ground.
Then they returned to the banks of the Sishui, surrounded by heavy night. Moonlight still spilled across the surface of the river, shimmering silver.
The King of Chu said: “Do you have any other questions?”
Ji Jiang said: “Yes.”
The King of Chu said: “Go ahead.”
Ji Jiang said: “Longxi lost the jade-pheasant in this era, but the jade-pheasant was clearly enshrined more than five hundred years ago by the state of Qin. In that case, in the five hundred years between then and the time at which Longxi lost the jade pheasant, wouldn’t there have existed two jade-pheasants at the same time: one with Longxi, one in the Qin temple? But there’s clearly only one jade-pheasant!”
The King of Chu said: “Yes, there’s only one. The one owned by Qin was the same one owned by Longxi. I told you, when time distorts, many incredible things can happen. Do you remember the two identical Windchasers? In reality, there weren’t two Windchasers, only one. And just then, didn’t you see your past self? People seem to have trouble understanding this, but that’s only because we live for so long in a one-way flow of time and have no way of seeing its entirety. How about this? Imagine a long ribbon. If I tie the ends together and make a loop, how many ribbons are there?”
Ji Jiang said: “One, of course, same as before.”
The King of Chu said: “Very good. And if I put my hands into the loop and pull in either direction so the loop is taut?”
Ji Jiang said: “There’s still only one ribbon.”
The King of Chu said: “Correct, there’s actually one ribbon. But say a small creature, like an ant, stood on the ribbon between my hands. It’s so small that its field of vision doesn’t encompass my hands at either end. In its eyes, how many ribbons are there?”
Ji Jiang hesitated, then said: “Two ribbons.”
The King of Chu said: “Yes, it sees two identical, parallel ribbons. It walks on one ribbon, and sees the other facing it. This situation resembles the phenomena that occur when time is distorted.”
Ji Jiang, deep in thought, said nothing.
The King of Chu didn’t rush her, but simply, quietly waited. He understood the difficulty of taking it all in.
After a time, Ji Jiang said: “I think I understand. But I have a second question.”
The King of Chu said: “Go ahead.”
Ji Jiang said: “Longxi used the jade-pheasant to reopen Chencang Passage for you, right?”
The King of Chu said: “Right.”
Ji Jiang said: “Why didn’t it choose to reopen the plankway instead? From my knowledge, the plankway had been burned only a few months ago, while Chencang Passage had been abandoned for five hundred years. Making it reappear should have been harder than making the plankway reappear. Why did it choose the difficult option?”
The King of Chu sighed. “It held certain hopes still.”
Ji Jiang asked: “Certain hopes?”
The King of Chu said: “It hoped that choosing a remote, long-abandoned passageway could lessen the ‘ripples of distortion.’ The Baoxie plankway has been a major trade route since it was built. It would be difficult to find a month where nobody was on it. If it accidentally brought any merchants with the passageway when it twisted time, it would undoubtedly have destabilized the future even further, increasing the difficulty of controlling it for Longxi. Only, this set of ripples of distortion had nothing to do with the passageway. I caused it all.”
Ji Jiang nodded. “I understand.” She paused, then said: “I still have one last question, and the most important.”
The King of Chu looked as if he’d long anticipated this.
Ji Jiang said: “Why do you want to destroy Longxi?”
The King of Chu said: “Why do you think?”
Hesitantly, Ji Jiang said: “Is it because of the enormous labor and wealth such a project would sap? Is it because Longxi’s too powerful and might threaten our existence? But regardless, humanity owes him a great debt. Without him, we wouldn’t have today.”
The King of Chu nodded. Meaningfully, he said: “Yes. Without him, we wouldn’t have today.” He said it very slowly, as if trying to get Ji Jiang to look at every word closely.
Ji Jiang was confused. Slowly, she thought she’d grasped something... suddenly, a terrible thought swept across her mind like lightning, fading before she could seize it. All that remained of it was a great sensation of horror.
The King of Chu watched her face. “Did you think of it?”
What did I realize? she asked herself desperately, trying to relocate where that thought had come from. Bit by bit, slowly... then the idea wormed itself out like a feral beast, reappearing with searing clarity in her mind.
The conspiracy left her stunned.
“You see now, yes?” the King of Chu said unhurriedly. “Without a beginning, how can there be an ending? Without a cause, how can there be an effect? If it hadn’t been this way from the start, then from where did the world of today spring?
“If I’d finished the project of filling in the sea for it, then the spaceship wouldn’t have been destroyed, thousands of years earlier. Longxi wouldn’t have needed to impart civilization upon us, so that we could help him fill in the sea.
“Such a strange paradox! If it hadn’t given us civilization, how could it have saved the spaceship? But these are the facts. There can only be one history. If it’s altered, the altered history ‘covers over’ the original version. This is the iron law of the universe!
“I recall that, in Longxi’s palace, I asked it: The first time its messenger made contact with me, he told me that without its help, I would die without achieving anything. But now I’d made a name for myself, become king. Where did that doomed ‘me’ go? If that ‘me’ didn’t exist, how did it learn about that ‘me’ from the river of time to begin with? It smiled without answering, and only had me read a poem. A poet from a thousand years later wrote it by the side of ‘my’ cenotaph to express sympathy for someone whose talents were ignored during his lifetime.
“After that, I was overcome with melancholy for a long time. When I recovered, it patiently told me: ‘See, without my help, you’ll still achieve fame, but only after your death! Do you know how ‘you’ made a name for himself? When ‘you’ died, ‘you’ left behind a military book. Its worth was only discovered a very long time later, at which point it became a treasure to all military men. And so, ‘your’ status began to rise. They built temples to ‘you,’ performed annual rituals to honor ‘you.’ The various dynasties conferred posthumous titles to ‘you.’ From marquis to king, from king to emperor, from emperor to saint... but what are these honors worth after you’re dead? This world is miserly to living wise men, but very generous to the dead ones, because only dead men pose no threat to those in power. Would you prefer such an unfair history? Now that I’ve changed history to the way it is now, what do you have to complain about?
“I was moved to the bottom of my heart by his words, and became even more grateful toward him. But then, afterwards, I realized that he didn’t actually give me a straight answer to my question. Why did he dodge this question?
“I understood later. That doomed ‘me’ still existed, but this successful ‘me’ covered him over. The existing version is real. The nonexistent version is real, even more real than the existing version.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?
“Longxi couldn’t tell me this chain of cause and effect. It feared that I’d deduct the disastrous end effect of completing the construction project: the destruction of civilization!
“When the last shovelful of earth is placed on that man-made island, think, what will happen? No writing, no clothing, no rituals-- everything would return to savagery! An existence of raw meat and caves. I wouldn’t be a king, and you wouldn’t be a handmaiden. Perhaps we’d still have met, perhaps not-- no, we might not even exist. Longxi made too many changes to our history. Battles that should have happened didn’t happen, warriors that should have died didn’t die, population that should have been lost wasn’t lost.
“Of course, from Fuxi’s perspective, it bestowed civilization upon us in the first place and therefore has the right to rescind it. Really, the unaltered version of history was the one we should have had. But from our perspective, once the door to knowledge is opened, no one has the right to close it again-- including the being or god who opened it. They can evolve us from savagery to civilization, but they cannot return us from civilization to savagery!
“This is why I had to destroy him. Not because of the price of construction, or its strength, but in order to preserve civilization.”
The moon hung high overhead. It was spring, but Ji Jiang still felt cold. “Why did you tell me all this?”
The King of Chu gazed gently at Ji Jiang. “You still don’t realize? Someone will need to reveal this conspiracy, but not now. Take the jade-pheasant to an era where humanity has the knowledge to understand everything! Tell all this to the people, so that it can never tempt them, so that they will never again be foolish enough to dig their own graves.”
“Me? Me alone?” Ji Jiang’s voice shook.
The King of Chu said: “Yes, you alone. I’ve looked for a long time, and you’re the most suitable person for the task. Someone as intelligent as you can surely do this.”
Ji Jiang said: “Then... what about you?”
The King of Chu said: “I’ll stay in this era to the bitter end.”
Panicked, Ji Jiang said: “No, no, you can’t beat him! We’ll leave together!”
The King of Chu smiled amiably. “You’re a smart girl. You know well enough that it’s impossible. It won’t ever let me go. With its seemingly infinite lifespan, it will hunt me down ceaselessly in whatever era I flee to. Neither you nor I would be safe.” The King of Chu’s smile twined its way into Ji Jiang’s heart, very nearly broke it.
“But... but...” She couldn’t keep herself from crying any longer. “You’ll die for sure if you stay! It’ll take revenge.”
“The revenge has already begun,” the King of Chu said. “It began last year at Dingtao. Don’t cry, Ji Jiang, this is the will of heaven.” He raised his head, gazing at the stars above. “In the beginning, I didn’t believe in the will of heaven. Then I believed. Then I thought that the will of gods can change the will of heaven. Now, only now, do I know that the will of heaven lies beyond the will of gods.”
“Who cares about the will of gods, the will of heaven?” Ji Jiang wept. “We have the jade-pheasant. Let’s change the will of heaven!”
The King of Chu said: “No, Ji Jiang, you can’t. You can’t violate the will of heaven. The jade-pheasant changes nothing. Do you still remember what Zhang Liang told us about one’s ‘share of fortune?’ I’d dismissed it back then. Only now do I realize that he was right. The jade-pheasant has shown me the path I must walk. It’s a hard path, yes, but I still have to walk it. This is the price for opening Chencang Passage with the jade-pheasant, for flouting the will of heaven. If I use the jade-pheasant to escape, I’ll disobey heaven again, and pay an even greater price for it. The will of heaven has its own laws, more powerful than even Longxi. An outside force might temporarily warp it, block it, but it will return to equilibrium in the end. It shows itself here: if one gains what one shouldn’t have gained, one will lose what one shouldn’t have lost.”
Ji Jiang said: “But you didn’t gain anything you shouldn’t have gained! So what if Chencang Passage was reopened? So what if you conquered the land under heaven? So what if you became king? They’re all things you should have gained! Someone as shallow and simple as Xiang Yu, as crude and grasping as Liu Bang could gain them, but you can’t? Your Highness, you’re a dragon among men, the pinnacle of this era’s genius. The land under heaven belonged to you from the start. Fame and glory belonged to you from the start. Why should you be guilty of anything? If the will of heaven forbids you from them, then what is it worth? Why do you have to obey an unjust will of heaven? Why can’t you rebel against an unreasoning will of heaven?
The King of Chu touched Ji Jiang’s cheek, wet with tears. “I’d once doubted the justice of the will of heaven, but now I realize that it didn’t make a mistake. Yes, I possess surpassing intelligence. But what is my intelligence good for? War. In other words, killing people. In an era where practically no one is my match, every plan I draw up has a terrifying capacity to kill and maim. Heaven can’t allow this. It must restrain my fate, or else I’d swallow the whole world whole. Ji Jiang, do you understand? I alone am the mistake. I was born in the wrong era-- hundreds, perhaps thousands of years too early.”
Ji Jiang looked at the King of Chu through eyes blurry with tears. After a time, she said: “Your Highness, do... do you already know your fate?”
“Yes,” said the King of Chu, “and I also know your fate, the fate of this world. Not long ago, the waves of disturbance finally ceased. The jade-pheasant let me see everything. If you follow my instructions, you’ll save all of civilization, and the world we know will survive unscathed--”
Ji Jiang said: “What about you? What about your fate? Where will you end up?”
The King of Chu said nothing, turning his face away. Slowly, gently, he said: “When you reach the future, read their history books!”
Ji Jiang felt a chill in her heart. She threw herself against the King of Chu, weeping. “No, I won’t go! I’ll stay with you! No matter where you end up, I’ll stay by your side. I won’t let you feel alone.”
The King of Chu gently stroked her trembling shoulders. He sighed, said: “That isn’t your fate, little girl. You can stay a while longer with me, but we’ll have to part someday. When that day comes, you can’t linger anymore. You can’t delay. Do you understand?”
Raggedly, through her sobs, Ji Jiang said: “I... I understand.”
April, May, June... the days flew past, impossible to hold back.
One day in December, the King of Chu finally reminded her to leave.
Ji Jiang looked at him. “It’s been less than a year, Your Highness. Can’t you let me stay for a full year?”
The King of Chu shook his head. “This isn’t for me to decide. The time has arrived. Didn’t you see that edict?”
Ji Jiang said: “What edict?”
The King of Chu said: “The emperor’s tour has reached Yunmeng Lakes. He wants to meet with his lords in Chen County.”
Ji Jiang said: “What does the emperor’s tour have to do with us? Why do we have to go where he goes?”
The King of Chu said: “Ji Jiang, you’ve always been smart. How can you not see? You’re trying to deceive yourself, no? Ji Jiang, what ought to come will come, sooner or later, no matter what we lie to ourselves. You have to face the truth. The emperor has never been one for pretty scenery. This southern tour of his is obviously targeted toward me. If I go to the meet, I won’t come back. Longxi controls the emperor, and the emperor controls me. How can you remain at my side? Do you want Longxi to learn where his jade-pheasant has ended up?”
“Then don’t go,” Ji Jiang cried. “Don’t go, all right?”
The King of Chu said: “It’s useless, Ji Jiang. Like I said, what ought to come will come. Longxi is far more intelligent than you or me. If I don’t go to the meet, it’ll come up with another way. I can’t run forever.”
Ji Jiang said: “But how did Longxi get the emperor to turn against you so? You’ve never wronged him! You conquered his empire for him, you’ve let him get away with so much... how could he listen to a demon’s slander and treat an able minister like this? Why would he do this?”
The King of Chu said: “Longxi doesn’t need to slander me. It only needs to tell the emperor about the Tripod’s Heart to make him hate me to the bone. He can find an excuse for the public easily enough-- maybe the matter of Zhongli Mei, maybe--”
Ji Jiang said: “The Tripod’s Heart? That thing you threw into the Sishui?”
The King of Chu said: “Yes, the heart of the Nine Tripods. With it, one can reawaken the Nine Tripods, turning it into the most powerful tool of governance under heaven.”
Ji Jiang said: “If it’s such a precious treasure, why did you destroy it? Why didn’t you gift it to the emperor to earn his goodwill? You knew he’d make you answer for what you did!”
The King of Chu said: “Yes, I knew, but I still had to destroy it. Its existence violated the way of heaven.”
Ji Jiang said: “The way of heaven? What way of heaven?”
The King of Chu said: “One who gains the hearts of the people gains the world. That is the way of heaven! With the Nine Tripods, a ruler can dispense with earning the goodwill of the people through virtuous rule and maintain control with only the power of a divine machine. This violates the way of heaven. I once told the emperor’s messenger that even the most powerful device can’t maintain a tyrannical government forever, but I knew in my heart that this wasn’t completely true. A divine instrument can still extend the lifespan of a despotic government. The long reigns of Xia, Shang, and Zhou before us proves it. The Nine Tripods allowed the prompt suppression of the most minor dissent among the people, allowed even the most corrupt and cruel rulers to hold onto power. The emperors and kings have learned that they have nothing to fear, that they can act however they wish without risking power and fortune. Jie of Xia, Zhou of Shang, King Li of Zhou... why could these uncommon tyrants appear? Because they had the Nine Tripods backing them up! Before the Xia Dynasty, the position of ruler was seen as a hard and burdensome job, and everyone tried to hand it off to others. Why? After the Xia Dynasty, the position of ruler was seen as the most precious and distinguished thing in the world, and everyone fought for it. Why? Because the Nine Tripods were built in the time of Yu of Xia! The Nine Tripods must be destroyed, because the way of heaven must live long and prosper.”
Ji Jiang said: “But... but while you held the Tripod’s Heart, did you... did you never think of using it for yourself?”
The King of Chu sighed. “Of course I did. What great temptation! Four years ago in Guanzhong, the Tripod’s Heart was in my hands, and the Nine Tripods lay undefended in front of me. I held armies; no one could have stopped me from taking it. It took me such willpower to hold myself back! It represented power without work, the fruit of governance with none of its labors. Why wouldn’t I want it? All those rulers before me used it, and used it without compunction. Why should I be the first to give it up? But I resisted the temptation in the end. If I couldn’t give it up, those after me had no reason to muster up their resolve. And I’m not sure if I could have made the same decision a second time around. Ai, that temptation shakes one’s heart too greatly.”
Ji Jiang said: “Your Highness, you... you’re always like this. You care more about the fate of the world under heaven than your own fate, your own life and death and shame and glory. But... why is fate so unfair to you--”
The King of Chu said: “Don’t say that, Ji Jiang. Fate has already been kind enough to me. Heaven originally willed me to a life of frustrated hopes. I still remember that poem Longxi showed me. It was from the history that was overlaid; it will never exist again.” The King of Chu collected his thoughts, then quietly recited: “Long sorrows for a life passed without opportunity; who knew of his abilities and talent? The fame of a thousand autumns came after his death. To no avail; those of his era did not yet know.
“See, compared with that ‘me,’ I’ve been greatly fortunate. Power, wealth, glory-- I’ve won and enjoyed all the things I’d longed for in my youth. Even if I’ll lose them, what’s there to regret?”
A herald reported: a black-robed man calling himself Qian Keng requested an audience.
The King of Chu said: “Let him enter.”
Ji Jiang said: “What’s he here for? To admire his master’s great masterpiece? To enjoy our misfortune? Hmph! He’s stopped calling himself by cryptic pseudonyms now, Guest this or Gentleman that. He gave his real name. Does he consider his immortality worth flaunting?”
The King of Chu said: “Ji Jiang, don’t be like this. He isn’t a bad man, and immortality gave him no pleasure. Have you ever seen him truly laugh or smile?”
The black-robed man entered. He stood, silently looking at the King of Chu. Slowly, something complicated entered his ever-cold eyes.
“Even today, I can’t say that I understand you.” He sighed. “I come this time not to represent my master, but to voice my own questions. I don’t know if you’ll answer.”
The King of Chu said: “Go ahead.”
Qian Keng said: “Liu Bang taking away your authority at Dingtao, his substitution of Chu for Qi-- his actions are more than enough to drive you to rebel with your armies. Why do you do nothing? With your military abilities, do you fear Liu Bang, of all people?”
The King of Chu said: “Liu Bang alone wouldn’t stand a chance, but it’s a different matter with your master behind him. Weren’t his actions instigated by your master?”
Qian Keng said: “Yes.”
The King of Chu said: “It wants to incite an open war, but didn’t expect that I’d refuse to respond, correct?”
Qian Keng said: “Yes, he was quite taken aback. He’s very dismayed.”
The King of Chu said: “Why should it be dismayed? It should be happy that I’m presenting a standing target.”
Qian Keng said: “I found it strange as well. I can’t comprehend the way his mind works at times. He says you cost him much of the satisfaction of revenge. He’s unable to go home for the time being, either, and finds himself very lonely on this world. You just barely count as a proper opponent. He’d wanted to duel you for a while to pass the time, not expecting that you’d forfeit from the start. He’s very disappointed.”
The King of Chu nodded. “This is why I won’t fight back. See, your master wants to play at a war to relieve his boredom, a game of cat and mouse that I have no chance of winning. If I’m going to lose sooner or later, why should I drag down so many others to accompany me in the grave? Do you think all the battles I’ve fought have made me take war casually? No, for me, war has always been the most sacred of all things. A long time ago, my master told me: ‘battle is a weapon of murder; a combatant goes against morality. Both should be used only when there’s no other option.’ The first chapter of The Art of War says, too, that ‘’war is a great matter of the state, the land between life and death, the path between survival and destruction. One must go into it with care.’ All my tactics come from the wisdom of my predecessors. I can’t disobey this teaching. In war, nothing is more important than the objective. What’s the objective of war? To stop fighting, to use as few deaths as you can to prevent more deaths, and not the other way around. Do you understand?”
Qian Keng murmured: “I understand, I understand.” He slowly retreated a few steps, then turned. “You are a true hero. History will remember you. I possess immortality, but history won’t remember me.”
Ji Jiang watched Qian Keng walk away into the distance. Her heart was chill. “Who cares about what history remembers? Your Highness, I’d rather that you lived forever.”
The King of Chu said gently: “I wouldn’t be the king you know, then. Ji Jiang, the time’s come. You should go.”
Ji Jiang forced back tears. “Your Highness,” she said, “can you let me comb your hair again? I won’t ever have the chance after this.”
The King of Chu nodded and sat.
Ji Jiang unfastened the King of Chu’s headdress, untied his topknot. His long, black hair fell down his back.
He sat there calmly, statue-still, as Ji Jiang gently combed his hair. She thought of the first time they met, when she combed his hair and fought with him over the placement of his topknot...
“What did you do with my hair? Stop playing around and change it back.”
“Hah, you were too much of an outsider to get it right, and now you’re complaining that I fixed it.”
“Nonsense! Do outsiders even exist for something like this? I didn’t bind my hair this way for decades for you to mess with it. Redo it right now!”
“Mess with it? Who’s messing with whom? You’re not King of Chu, so why should your topknot be on the right side? We people of Qi tie our topknots on the left. You’re king, but you insist on going against the ways of your ministers and your people? Fine, I’ll change it back right away!”
“Wait! Don’t! I may have wronged you.”
“It isn’t ‘may.’ You wronged me, plain and simple!”
“Fine, Fine, I wronged you. Why are you so angry, anyway? I’m from Chu, after all. I don’t know the customs of Qi!”
“Then you should be more humble, listen around more, look around more!”
That had passed. All was past, like the dying of a breeze, like the fading of a dream in spring, joyous and brief. From this day onward, she would walk alone on the path of her unknown fate. She wasn’t yet twenty, but she knew that, for the rest of her life, she would never know naive happiness again.
Her tears flowed, falling on her hands, her comb, the King of Chu’s crow-black hair. One, two... she gathered the King of Chu’s hair. Left, or right?”
She threw down the comb, rushed in front of the King of Chu, and knelt, seizing his hand. “Your Highness, we can forget Longxi, forget the spaceship, forget the filling in of the sea, forget all of this. We can find a different era and start anew! We can blend in with the crowds, the mountains, the wilderness, the cities. We can change our names and pass our lives in ordinary anonymity. Longxi will never find us!”
The King of Chu said: “Ji Jiang, I can’t pretend I don’t know all this. You know that his conspiracy, once it succeeds, will doom all of civilization--”
“Oh, Your Highness,” Ji Jiang wept. “Stop worrying about conspiracies and civilizations and the workings of heaven. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe someone else will stop it. We’re both alive and well and here, so that means Longxi doesn’t succeed. Why do we have to do something so desperate?”
The King of Chu said: “Didn’t I tell you? The altered history will cover over the original. We can’t just sit back and hope. Civilization will exist only if you and I don’t give up. Ji Jiang, don’t cry, you should feel proud. We were chosen by heaven. I was fated to destroy its den, and you’re fated to reveal its conspiracy to the world before it can rebuild.”
“There are so many people in the world,” Ji Jiang cried. “Why you? Why me? Everyone else gets to muddle along and enjoy the fruits of civilization. Why do you and I alone have to sacrifice ourselves for its existence? Your efforts saved this world, but who will know? Who will thank you? Your Highness, why do you have to do this? What do you have to gain by it?”
The King of Chu gently wiped away Ji Jiang’s tears. “I’ll gain nothing, but I still have to do this. Once I learned of its conspiracy, I lost the right to live my life in peace. Perhaps heaven granted me my mind so I can fulfill such a difficult destiny. I’ve done a good enough job, I think, worthy of heaven’s gift to me. Ji Jiang, don’t cry for me. My destiny is complete, and I can rest. But you have many things to do, and you might find yourself facing many challenges. You need to adjust to surroundings different from ours, learn a language different from ours, carefully deal with those who harbor ill intentions... remember, don’t go into the past. Longxi controls the past. Go to the future, to a safe era, and write this all down. Tell its conspiracy to the people to forever doom its hopes. From what I know, it took three thousand years to build its first jade-pheasant. This time around, it has prior experience to draw from. It may only need a bit over two thousand years. So you must fulfill your task within that period of time. Do you understand?”
Ji Jiang nodded, tears in her eyes.
The King of Chu said: “If, in the river of time, you find another occultist that’s persuaded the ruler toward alchemy, collecting cinnabar, realgar, plumbago, lead, and the like, you must be careful. They’re signs that Longxi is active and has control over the ruler. You can’t stay there for long. You should leave as soon as possible.”
Ji Jiang nodded again.
The King of Chu said: “‘Possessing elephants’ teeth dooms one to immolation; possessing a jade disc is a crime.’ Many people will covet the jade-pheasant for its abilities. When you finish your task, destroy it immediately.”
Ji Jiang threw herself against the King of Chu, sobbing. “But... but I want to use it to go back and visit you!”
“No,” said the King of Chu. “You can’t return, ever. This is a dangerous era. I have the you of now. I don’t need the future you to accompany me. Remember me, no more! If you miss me, you can find me in the history books. Remember the name of this dynasty-- Han.” The King of Chu took out the jade-pheasant. He opened it, made adjustments, closed it back up. He placed it gently into Ji Jiang’s hand.
Luo! Luo! Luo!
The chill pheasant-cries sounded, and the soft white light slowly enclosed Ji Jiang’s body.
Ji Jiang looked at the King of Chu’s blurring form. She felt as if something were blocking her throat. It took effort to say: “Your Highness, in all these years, did you never... never...”
The King of Chu’s voice came from outside the thickening mist. “Ji Jiang, I like you, and I know you like me. But that’s not love, but mutual loneliness. It’s hard for the intelligent to find a kindred spirit in this era. Go to the future. There are many intelligent people there. You’ll find a real--”
An thin, ear-splitting note drowned out the King of Chu’s voice. “No!” Ji Jiang cried. “No! Your Highness, you know in your heart, it’s not--” But the shrieking overwhelmed even her own sobs.
Tears flowing, she reached out a hand in the mists of time and space, longing but powerless to hold onto something. In the end, she could catch nothing. The milk-white sea carried her small, lone form toward a foreign time…
-------------------------- Yunmeng Lakes is a group of famous lakes located in modern-day Hubei Province. Due to siltification, the lakes today are far smaller than they were in ancient times.
Thanks to Nazne for helping me post the last chapter while I was unable to get to Blogger. And thanks to my roommate for allowing me to get to Blogger.
Thanks to Nazne for helping me post the last chapter while I was unable to get to Blogger. And thanks to my roommate for allowing me to get to Blogger.